Pocca’s Zhihua Duan on launching the studio in China, and the multicultural approach of their work
Pocca is a Shanghai-based design studio with a practice primarily focused on graphic design, visual identity, brand strategy and conceptual research. Following four years of studying and living in Melbourne, founding partner Zhihua Duan launched the studio in China – working with both international and local clients. In our conversation, Duan delves into his multicultural design philosophy, how Pocca operates in cross-cultural contexts, and more.
PT Hi Zhihua, how are you?
ZD I am good! We just completed a few intense projects and now start to enjoy the autumn mood in Shanghai.
PT What have you and the team at Pocca been working on lately?
ZD We have completed three new branding projects recently: the branding and localising for German eyewear brand Stepper and British sneaker brand Norman Walsh for their operations in the Chinese market, and one for The Space which is a local cafe and gallery space in Shanghai. Two more editorial projects are currently in progress. In the strategy part, my partner has just completed a market research and analysis project for a new commercial real estate in Sanya, South China. Meanwhile, we are running our own brand, Circunow, which is about sustainable materials and a carbon-neutral economy.
Many things can no longer be interpreted from just one cultural perspective.
PT That’s interesting, I didn’t realise that. What are your plans for Circunow? And how do balance your time between it and Pocca?
ZD We started Circunow last year and are currently focusing on B2B business using recycled PET material as the core of the whole practice. Pocca takes on the role of brand operation and design. We recycle empty plastic bottles (or PET waste), decompose the material, transform it into different new materials, design and produce products, while quantifying their impact and value to the environment. We’ve recently started experimenting with some interesting retail brands to gradually increase our access to the c-suite, for example, we’ll be working with a designer friend’s outdoor lifestyle brand to develop a tent using our material.
At Pocca, we see Circunow as more of an investment and an opportunity to realise our own ideas and to learn about the business, market and production processes that are difficult to reach in a commissioned project. As with all of the studio’s commissions, we plan ahead and allocate the time we need, but in Circunow, we work a little more cost-free. I am mainly involved in brand design and creative direction, Jiacheng takes on more workload than I do at the current stage, involving brand direction, market research, product planning and development, etc.
PT How did your experience in Melbourne impact your approach to design, and by extension, your decision to set up your own studio?
ZD Melbourne is a great city, especially with all the great coffee shops! It’s full of culture and art events every month, as well as a natural mix of cultures from different countries and regions, peacefully and cheerfully. In retrospect, my interest in contemporary multiculturalism was probably further amplified there, so it seems I don’t care so much about which culture’s language I’m designing in, but rather whether the design honestly responds to the corresponding context in this globalised world. I feel that many things can no longer be interpreted from just one cultural perspective.
The decision to set up the studio actually came a little earlier than I had planned, but many things just don’t go according to plan. Due to the change in my previous job in a branding and industrial design agency in Shanghai and the fact that more and more projects came to me directly and I also had some other types of practice outside of branding projects, I decided to formally establish a studio to be able to facilitate my practice.
PT Can you tell us about the early days of launching Pocca with Jiacheng? Was there anything you learned or would have done differently?
ZD I launched Pocca in late 2019, just before the pandemic outbreak, and then Jiacheng joined in mid-2020 when we officially registered the company and rented our current office. Unlike my background, Jiacheng is not a designer, and prior to running Pocca together, he served as strategy director at both a branding agency and within a brand, in turn.
I direct the design part in the studio, while Jiacheng is in charge of strategic research for branding projects. Since not all projects include both strategy and design, we have projects that both we work on together and independently. The relationship between the two of us in the studio practice is more like a complementary one. I think, most importantly, we are able to provide each other with different perspectives and voices, and the inspiration this brings is invaluable and fortunate for us.
PT How did your first projects, DULi and The Peony Pavilion, affect your reputation and recognition as a studio?
ZD DULi and The Peony Pavilion were two of our early studio projects. After they were released, we found many people reposted the projects on social media or reached out to us directly who found the design style to be clean and sophisticated without much trendy or eye-candy visuals, and therefore more people started to pay attention to Pocca, which was quite unexpected.
PT How would you describe the design industry in Shanghai?
ZD Shanghai is exciting, as probably the most international city in China, and there are always different events and exhibitions happening here. All types of design teams and styles have room to develop themselves. Some designers here are deeply involved in the field of culture and arts, some in the balance of commercial and cultural, some in a specific industry, and some ‘slash’ designers are involved in different practices and collaborations. On the other hand, a growing number of new Chinese brands and businesses are being born here, and many overseas brands are locating their China operations teams in Shanghai, which also provides opportunities for designers.
I am sure this situation has a lot to do with Shanghai's diverse and dynamic environment of commercial and cultural tolerance, thanks to the city’s historical specificity and its international character.
PT Who have been the biggest creative influences throughout your career?
ZD It’s hard to say. I feel that I have been touched and influenced by many people or events in my career path, such as my university professors Chen Rong and Chen Tao, two of the first-class type-based designers in China, who brought me into the world of typography; my experience studying at Monash University in Australia influenced my attitude on research in the design process; the collaboration and friendship with New Zealand designer Catherine Griffiths have inspired me a lot to think about details and improvisation in design. And of course, the books and speeches I have read and watched by designers from different countries and cultural backgrounds have opened up different perspectives for me.
There are far fewer options for Chinese fonts than for English.
PT How has thinking more about improvisation shaped your design process?
ZD ‘Improvisation’ is not completely unscripted, it just tends not to limit the eventual direction; it is also not without setting rules, it is just more receptive to rules that do not completely pre-determine the outcome. Therefore, we are able to leave space and mindset to face diverse and unexpected situations in the design process, and embrace an end result that may include improvisation and not quite follow the initial plan. This seems to stimulate more curiosity throughout the design process, keeping us thinking positively, generating unexpected surprises, and avoiding making design a paradigmatic labour of love.
PT You mentioned that, as a studio, you pay a lot of attention to the compatibility and balance of bilingual and multicultural design in projects. Why so?
ZD This situation is actually common in some Asian countries, such as China, Japan and Korea. In China, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there are many people from different countries living here and many businesses need to face not only Chinese people but also foreigners, or even they develop for overseas markets at the same time. On the other hand, for example, in branding projects, when a business decides to operate itself as a brand, it is no longer just about selling products, but about placing the business in contemporary culture context, thus adding an additional layer of cultural attributes that connect with the era and people. Therefore, in many cases, it becomes a ‘necessity’ to help brands with a need for ‘culture’ to face ‘multicultural’ situations, and to set different languages and cultures coexist harmoniously in the design instead of simply applying Chinese directly to the layout and form of English, and vice versa.
PT What criteria do you have in mind when selecting typographic choices for a multilingual identity?
ZD Since the workload of developing Chinese fonts is many times that of Latin fonts, there are far fewer options for Chinese fonts than for English. Therefore, in identity design, it is almost difficult to find options that directly match the typefaces of the two languages, unless the most neutral typefaces, such as Helvetica. We usually pick the font with the right general style or feeling according to the target direction, sometimes starting with Chinese first, and many times with English first, and then modify the details of the typeface so that both can convey the same tone and message, while keeping the rules for each language. In addition, the majority of Chinese typefaces in logotypes are customised for the project, which is also because it is much more expensive to use existing Chinese fonts directly as logos than English.
PT Having worked on both local projects in China and projects from overseas, is there anything you think Western design could learn from Chinese design and vice-versa?
ZD Perhaps I am not so qualified to answer this question completely, as a young generation of designers, I am also still on the way to learning and thinking. Graphic design is a design discipline heavily associated with culture and language. From our own practical experience and observation of design, both Chinese and Western design have their own traditions and rules of visual experience, and there are some forms that can get almost completely unified and borrow from each other, while some forms and rules that are only suitable for one of the languages.
For example, due to the geometric and linear characteristics of English itself, in Europe, you will often see the visuals of enlarging and exaggerating the typefaces, which is very expressive and beautiful, but in many cases, this approach is not applicable to Chinese, otherwise, it is easy to fall into a very superficial fetishism and seems weird. It is important to try to understand each other’s culture during the practice.
PT When rebranding or localising a Western brand for the Chinese market, what are the major changes you normally start with?
ZD We usually start with a conversation to open up an understanding of the brand and the cultural background they come from, and then go on to discuss how much change they want to make in terms of localising and why, such as which parts must be strictly retained, which parts need to be adjusted, and which parts need to be added for the Chinese market.
For example, Stepper’s Chinese operator pays more attention to ‘customisation’ for the Chinese market, using ‘Stepper Custom-Made’ instead of ‘Stepper’ as the brand name in China, so in this project, we were more like dealing with a new brand with a historical heritage; and in Norman Walsh, we took many of the cues from the original brand’s visual assets and context, and then expanded and added a series of dynamic visual elements to the brand that help them to speak to the youth in China.
We like it a lot, so just make it a manifesto!
PT How would you describe Pocca’s workspace?
ZD Clean, comfortable, with some little fun, plants in every corner, and some friends think our studio is too quiet…
PT What plans do you have in mind for the future of the studio? Do you aim to grow the team or expand into different areas?
ZD In the short term, probably for the next two or three years, we hope the studio remains small in size, which allows us to have enough time and energy to explore each project and the flexibility to find a balance between commissioned projects and our studio-driven projects without losing energy in finance and management due to the rapid expansion. But we embrace possibilities, whether it’s looking for new collaborators or opening new offices in other cities, or even the possibility of founding an overseas office that Jiacheng and I have discussed during the lockdown period in Shanghai.
PT Your new website is headed up with Pocca’s full name – ‘a Playground of Conceptive & Cheerful Actions’ – why did you decide to place it there?
ZD When I first named the studio Pocca, it simply came from my love of the rhythmic, classical yet free tone of Polka music, and the pronunciation of the word itself. As the intertwined state between rigorous concepts and clean and pleasing outcomes came to the forefront of our practice, this phrase came to my mind one day, and the initials of each word just corresponded to our name, which was probably a kind of improvisation as well. We like it a lot, so just make it a manifesto!